Gunpowder, treason and plot

Firework 2In honour of Guy Fawkes Day, we at hjHQ thought it would be fun to bring you a little extra post on something that is kind of connected to the theme of the day – fireworks. Or as they are called in the theatre – Pyrotechnics. (Or ‘How to make things go Flash and Bang without burning down the theatre or killing the actors!’)

Here’s what the lovely Industry FX specialists at Stage Light say about it all:

‘Pyrotechnics have been used in the theatre for hundreds of years; it’s only in the past couple of decades that they have become easier and safer to use. It’s not that long ago that a typical flash pot consisted of a piece of fuse wire, a pile of flash powder and a convenient mains socket; along with that simplicity went accidents. These days we use pre-packaged effects from manufacturers like Le Maitre or Skyhigh FX with their modern firing systems. Whilst safer than the older methods, they are still dangerous if not used correctly.

Types of Pyrotechnics Device

The most common devices in small theatres are the following…

  • Theatrical Flash – produces a brilliant white flash followed by a pure white mushroom cloud of smoke that rises upwards. This is the classic ‘genie appearance’ effect.
  • Coloured Theatrical Flash – as above but with a coloured flash, available in Red, Green and Amber.
  • Silver Star – similar to a Theatrical Flash but it combines sparkling silver stars with the flash. The stars go in all directions to a distance of about 2.5 metres.
  • Smoke Puff – a pure white puff of smoke with no flash.
  • Coloured Smoke – a small bang followed by a plume of thick coloured smoke which lasts 7 secs (medium size) or 30 secs (large device). The colour contains a dye which will stain costumes and scenery so take care when placing these devices.

These are all supplied as packaged devices. They are placed into specially designed pods for firing and it is important that the pods are firmly fixed to the stage to stop them being knocked over.

The Firing System

All firing systems have the same basic features…

  • A power source – often mains but battery systems are available
  • A key operated switch – a very important safety feature, keep the key on you at all times, do not leave it in the firing box
  • One or more output sockets – to connect to the pods. Each output will have it’s own arming switch
  • Fire button – when the key switch is on, the output armed and this button is pressed the attached device will fire
  • Test lights – so that the wiring can be checked before use

Licence Conditions

The use of pyrotechnics is covered by your venue’s licence from the local council. I guess that you all know the conditions in your Theatre Licence off by heart don’t you? You have read them haven’t you? Joking aside, it’s important that you follow the conditions in the licence; failure to do so could have serious consequences.

Practical Safety

Even the relatively small pyrotechnic devices we use on stage are capable of causing serious injury to people or serious damage to the building. The hazards come in a number of forms…

  • Heat – when ignited most devices give off an intense burst of heat. This is capable of causing severe burns to people and of setting alight surrounding scenery and props.
  • Smoke – most devices are designed to make a quantity of smoke. Whilst not toxic, some people, especially those who suffer from Asthma, may have their breathing affected. Too much smoke may also cause problems with actors not being able to see their entrances and exits.
  • Sound – some of the devices we use make a ‘bang’ when set off. Apart from the danger to anyone who is too close to them, there is an additional, often forgotten risk, to any sound equipment nearby. The sound of the device going off, when amplified, is capable of causing serious damage to loudspeakers. Make sure your sound engineer knows when to turn down the amplifier.
  • Debris – some devices, especially those which ‘spark’, generate hot fallout which may set alight any nearby surface.
  • Bright Flash – whilst not usually bright enough to cause any damage, the flash may cause temporary blindness, a bit like a camera flash does, making it difficult for people to see. It’s best if actors don’t look at a device about to be fired.


It’s vital that you do a risk assessment when considering the use of pyrotechnic devices. It’s an excellent way of highlighting any problem areas that you may have. You should also have a written set of safety rules. Whilst not exhaustive, the following 10 rules are a good starting point…

  1. No-one under 18 years old should handle or fire pyrotechnics.
  2. All pyrotechnics must be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Read the manufacturers data sheet thoroughly.
  3. Devices must only be fired with a system designed for the purpose.
  4. When not about to be fired, take the firing key out of the control box.
  5. All scenery in the area should be fireproofed (in fact all scenery on stage should be fireproofed).
  6. Before you use a device, carry out a test firing so that you know how big the effect is and what fallout it produces
  7. Always consider doing the effect with sound and lights, it will be cheaper and safer.
  8. Never modify a device – it is illegal and dangerous.
  9. The operator must have a clear view of the device and its surrounding area before firing.
  10. If a device misfires or doesn’t fire at all, treat it with extreme care. Disconnect it and wait until it is safe to check it.’

Fireworks 1

Some pretty interesting stuff there and good safety advice too. Thanks very much to Stage Light for their FX expertise.

If you’re thinking about using pyrotechnics in your next production, let us know in plenty of time so we can get together with the Technical Team at the Arts Centre and make sure you get all the Flash Bangs you want without doing yourself a mischief!

Some useful websites for further information can be found HERE and HERE and HERE

Wishing you a happy and safe Guy Fawkes Night from everyone at hj-HQ!


NEXT UP: Our reigning youth champs & Pewsey’s big weekend


If you have a story you’d like us to include here in our blog, or if there’s something you’d like us to write about, let us know at  So long as it’s festival/drama/local theatre centred, we’ll definitely give it a look!

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Posted in 2015, Technical

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